America's turn toward imperialism in 1898, and the Philippines Insurrection, hold lessons for us today.
January 31, 2007
Re: Stephen Kinzer, The Philippines Insurrection, And America Today.
From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
Some readers of this blog, and some reviewers of the printed collection of posts called Blogs From The Liberal Standpoint: 2004-2005, have commented that this blogger seems to read a lot of books. Well, this writer doesn't begin to approach Theodore Roosevelt or Gladstone or Gladstone's biographer, Roy Jenkins, in this respect, but by modern American standards the comments may have some truth. It was to be able to read books, indeed, that this blogger gave up most television watching, just as a famous Harvard economist of the mid 20th Century, Alexander Gerschenkron, gave up reading newspapers so that he would have time to read books.
Some of the books one reads are read purely for pleasure. Others are read for that reason, but also to conduct one hour-long television interviews with authors about their books. Still others are read for pleasure but also to have some knowledge of them when their authors give talks about the works at our law school as part of an authors' discussion series. Regardless, however, rarely has this blogger used a posting to present, in extenso, the arguments, and facts supporting the arguments, of a particular book. That, however, is exactly what will be done in this posting (and in some forthcoming ones). It is being done here because the book in question, a work by Stephen Kinzer entitled Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change From Hawaii To Iraq (Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2006), strikes me as being of surpassing importance, as being a book that should be absorbed by every American who is concerned about the current war and our place in the world. The summaries to be given here, however, like any summary or review of a book, can only scratch the surface. One strongly recommends that people buy the book and read it cover to cover - - more than once.
* * * *
"History is bunk," I believe Henry Ford said. Someone else, whose name escapes me, said that "history is agreed upon lies." These are unhappy propositions that one is loathe to believe. Yet, when you look at how the Civil War and Reconstruction were so long distorted -- were lied about and rendered unrecognizable -- by a uniformly accepted, psychologically driven southern school of writing, one can only conclude that at times there is something to the idea that history is nothing but agreed upon lies. Or plain bunk.
Kinzer's book deals with a similar phenomenon, one that has cast a disastrous shadow for over a century, is causing disaster today (as it did in the 1960s), and, unless corrected after a century, would bid fair to create disaster in the future too. As a historian, this blogger is a rank amateur, but he has read enough to know that what Kinzer says is apparently true, that he has collected in one place events that usually are treated disparately though there is a common thread, and that he has presented an all too true side of American history that you don't learn in high school or in College History 101.
Kinzer's book deals with the fact that at least since 1898, or, one could argue, from 1893, this country has believed in and practiced the use of force to overthrow governments that our leaders don't like or from which our leaders and large corporations covet land, resources or markets. In overthrowing governments from 1898 (or 1893) until today, using overt military force where necessary or secretly sponsored (and often American-controlled) coups where desirable, our leaders have always given false reasons for, told lies about, our motivations. We were going to bring freedom and civilization to our "little brown brothers" or to the "gooks" or to others we referred to by racist appellations, or we were going to bring them the benefits of a market economy, or we were shouldering "the white man's burden" of improving the world, or we were maintaining what Theodore Roosevelt said were the great fighting qualities of the Anglo Saxon race instead of going soft (and were assuaging certain of Roosevelt's personal psychiatric demons arising from his father's failure to serve in the Civil War and his own frailty as a youth). But at bottom, the most important reasons for doing what we did were selfish economic ones. George Bush is not the first President to lie like a rug about the reasons for war, nor the first to take us into war for selfish reasons. He is only the latest in a long line, stretching from McKinley (or the second Harrison) through Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan. Oh, and let us not forget Foster Dulles, one of the all time champeens in this arena.
In 1898 when it decided to go to war with Spain (or maybe in 1893 when we sponsored the overthrow of the Hawaiian government), this country went very wrong, made a horribly wrong turn, and did so almost on a dime. In 1898 this country decided, with a jingoism worthy of any comparison you wish to make, that it was going to become an imperialist power that fought wars on other people's soil, and on oceans all over the world, in order to establish itself as a world power. True, it had fought an imperialist war with Mexico in the 1840s in order to get hold of one half -- one half! -- of that country's territory, an imperialist war reviled by both Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, the two men who saved the Union less than two decades later. And true, this country and its forbears had been destroying the Indians and stealing their land since the mid to late 1600s. But never before had it gone abroad to fight wars and take over countries. In 1898 this all changed. We fought on the territory of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, we fought in the waters of the Philippines and Cuba, and we took over those countries. If you count 1893, 1898 was the second time of fourteen, in a total of just over 100 years, in which, Kinzer says, we were the major cause of regime change abroad. His count doesn't even include either of the two World Wars, but does include such abysmal American performances -- and often long run disasters -- as getting rid of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, overthrowing Arbenz (who was killed) in Guatemala in 1954, getting rid of Diem (who was killed) in Viet Nam in 1963, getting rid of Allende (who was killed) in Chile in 1973, and, what at least currently is a disaster, getting rid of Saddam in 2003.
Why was there a sudden change, what was the truly fundamental reason for a sudden change, for a sudden surge of imperialism in 1898, a surge that has not receded to this day, when we apparently have over 700 military bases, large and small, around the world, when much of the world understandably hates our guts because of our imperialistic actions, and -- it is only lately becoming safe to say in the United States -- countries which we revile (Iran, North Korea) want to obtain atomic bombs to deter us from attacking them as we attacked Iraq. Well, the fundamental reason for the change was economic, points out Kinzer (as have others recently, e.g., Andrew Bacevich). America's industrial capacity had grown immensely since the Civil War. It was now the equal of, or surpassed, that of any other country. The home market, however, was incapable of absorbing all that our industry could produce. As well, "In the quarter century before 1898, much of the world suffered through a series of economic crises. The United States was not exempt, passing through depressions or financial panics in the mid 1870s, mid-1880s, and early 1890s. Political leaders saw overseas expansion as the ideal way to end this destructive cycle." (Kinzer, p.105.)
One might ask, were the economic conditions at home so widely excellent that markets here were, realistically speaking, tapped out, making it necessary to go abroad? Not at all. Not at all. Though Kinzer doesn't discuss it, until after World war II most people in this country were poor or, at best, part of the working class. But in 1898, it was felt that we must imperialistically go abroad to force foreigners to buy our goods, rather than develop the home market. For developing the home market would have involved some form of wealth redistribution that would lift people from poverty (as began much later with the New Deal). Heaven forbid we should in some way be redistributionalists at home. Better to be imperialists abroad.
By the end of the nineteenth century, farms and factories in the United States were producing considerably more goods than Americans could consume. For the nation to continue its rise to wealth, it needed foreign markets. They could not be found in Europe, where governments, like that of the United States, protected domestic industries behind high tariff walls. Americans had to look to faraway countries, weak countries, countries that had large markets and rich resources but had not yet fallen under the sway of any great power.
This search for influence abroad gripped the United States in 1898. Spreading democracy, Christianizing heathen nations, building a strong navy, establishing military bases around the world, and bringing foreign governments under American control were never ends in themselves. They were ways for the United States to assure itself access to the markets, resources, and investment potential of distant lands.
Although the American economy grew tremendously during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, much of the country's fabulous new wealth enriched only a few thousand captains of industry. Conditions for most ordinary people were steadily deteriorating. By 1893, one of every six American workers was unemployed, and many of the rest lived on subsistence wages. Plummeting agricultural prices in the 1890s killed off a whole generation of small farmers. Strikes and labor riots broke out from New York to Chicago to California. Socialist and anarchist movements began attracting broad followings. In 1894, Secretary of State Walter Gresham, reflecting a widespread fear, said he saw "symptoms of revolution" spreading across the country.
Many businesses and political leaders concluded that the only way the American economy could expand quickly enough to deal with these threats was to find new markets abroad. (Kinzer, p.34.)
* * * * *
American leaders clamored for this [imperialist] policy because, they said, the country desperately needed a way to resolve its "glut" of overproduction. This glut, however, was largely illusory. While wealthy Americans were lamenting it, huge numbers of ordinary people were living in conditions of severe deprivation. The surplus production from farms and factories could have been used to lift millions out of poverty, but this would have required a form of wealth redistribution that was repugnant to powerful Americans. Instead they looked abroad.
By embracing the "open door" policy, the United States managed to export many of its social problems. The emergence of markets abroad put Americans to work, but it distorted the economies of poor countries in ways that greatly increased their poverty. As American companies accumulated vast sugar and fruit plantations in the Pacific, Central America, and the Caribbean, they forced countless small farmers off their land. Many became contract laborers who worked only when Americans needed them, and naturally came to resent the United States. At the same time, American companies flooded these countries with manufactured goods, preventing the development of local industry. (Kinzer, p.106.)
All of this sounds suspiciously like the wave of globalization that become an American mania in the 1990s and 2000s, does it not? The reason is: it was like it. Globalization is nothing new. (Indeed it goes back at least to the British mercantile system of the 1700s.)
As part of the economically driven imperialism of 1898 -- an imperialism that continues to this day -- American soldiers committed horrendous atrocities in the Philippines that prefigured Viet Nam, our treatment of prisoners under George Bush, and increasingly revealed conduct in Iraq, I shall discuss the atrocities in the Philippines in a moment. But let me say now that, as in Viet Nam and today, Americans "laughed off' this conduct, so to speak. It was treated as just something unfortunately unavoidable in pursuit of some purported greater good:
The scandal over torture and murder in the Philippines, for example, might have led Americans to rethink their country's worldwide ambitions, but it did not. Instead, they came to accept the idea that their soldiers might have to commit atrocities in order to subdue insurgents and win wars. Loud protests followed revelations of the abuses Americans had committed in the Philippines but, in the end, those protests faded away. They were drowned out by voices insisting that any abuses must have been aberrations and that to dwell on them would show weakness and a lack of patriotism. (Kinzer, p.106.)
When America sent armies into Cuba and the Philippines in 1898 to fight the Spanish it was claimed that the latter were booted out because of our armies. Actually, this was pretty far from the truth. There had been internal resistance and native armies fighting the Spanish, sometimes for decades, and they were making real progress, were even on the precipice of victory, when we invaded. They cooperated with us when we invaded. But when we got into their countries, we told the indigenous armies they could not participate in victory ceremonies, could not even enter major cities. The Cubans recognized our superior force, and accepted bitter terms that led to American sponsored dictatorship, Mafioso controlled gambling and tourism, and poverty for the Cuban people for the next 60 years. We, as Kinzer says, were the creators of Castro -- nobody else was. We were. And for our government to revile him for the last 45 years, I would say, long ago became simply stupid, since we are the cause of him and his revolution. It is frankly little wonder, given what we did to his country from 1898 until he took over, that he wanted the Russians to fire off the numerous operational nukes they had in Cuba in 1962.
The aftermath of our invasion of the Philippines was somewhat different, was much worse for a period, because the Filipinos fought us. There were ironies. When the war with Spain began, McKinley did not even know where the Philippines were and could not locate them on a map. (Does this sound like most Americans and Viet Nam and Afghanistan?) "McKinley was a devout Christian living in an era of religious revivalism." (Kinzer, p. 47.) He said he had to wrestle extensively with the question of what to do about the Philippines, and "he fell to his knees in the White House on several evenings 'and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance.'" (Ibid) (Maybe he was the real George Bush the first.) '"One night late, it came to me this way,'" he said. '"There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos and uplift them and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could for them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.'" (Ibid.) (Do you wonder why our enemies in the Middle East call us "crusaders"?) McKinley was going to Christianize the Filipinos -- Oh, boy. He did not even know that "most of [them] were already practicing Catholics," which "suggested his ignorance of conditions on the islands." (Does this sound like the current George Bush and Iraq, or what?)
When the Americans decided to take over their country, the Filipinos did "not go gently into that good night" to quote Dylan Thomas, causing Americans to write home that "they had come 'to blow every n-word to
n-word heaven,'" "'until the niggers are killed off like Indians.'" (Kinzer, p. 50.) Lacking weapons, a dearth enforced by an American naval blockade (Ibid),
the guerrillas turned to tactics unlike any the Americans had ever seen. They laid snares and booby traps, slit throats, set fires, administered poisons, and mutilated prisoners. The Americans, some of whose officers were veteran Indian fighters, responded in kind. When two companies under the command of General Lloyd Wheaton were ambushed southeast of Manila, Wheaton ordered every town and village within twelve miles to be destroyed and their inhabitants killed.
During the first half of the Philippine War, American commanders imposed censorship on foreign correspondents to assure that news of episodes like this did not reach the home audience. Only after censorship was lifted in 1901 were Americans able to learn how the war was being waged. Newspapers began carrying reports like one filed early in 1901 by a correspondent from the Philadelphia Ledger.
Our present war is no bloodless, fake, opera bouffe engagement. Our men have been relentless; have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of ten and up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino, as such, was little better than a dog, noisome reptile in some instances, whose best disposition was the rubbish heap. Our soldiers have pumped salt water into men to "make them talk," have taken prisoner people who held up their hands and peacefully surrendered, and an hour later, without an atom of evidence to show that they were even insurrectos, stood them on a bridge and shot them down one by one, to drop into the water below and float down as an example to those who found their bullet-riddled corpses. (Kinzer, pp. 50-51.)
In response to the killing of Americans, a colonel who had participated in the massacre at Wounded Knee "ordered his men to kill everyone over the age of ten and turn the island's interior into a 'howling wilderness.'" "'I want no prisoners,"' he told his men, "'I wish you to kill and burn. The more you kill and the more you burn, the better you will please me.'" So the Americans "killed hundreds of people, burned crops, slaughtered cattle, and destroyed dozens of settlements." (Kinzer, p. 53.)
Does this sound like Viet Nam?
In a prelude to Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans used torture with abandon:
After Balangiga, however, a flood of revelations forced [Americans at home] out of their innocence. Newspaper reporters sought out returned veterans and from their accounts learned that American soldiers in the Philippines had resorted to all manner of torture. The most notorious was the "water cure," in which sections of bamboo were forced down the throats of prisoners and then used to fill the prisoners' stomachs with dirty water until they swelled in torment. Soldiers would jump on the prisoner's stomach to force the water out, often repeating the process until the victim either informed or died. (Kinzer, pp. 53-54.)
There was a backlash for a while against some of this, at least among some of our prominent citizens. Noted anti imperialist "Mark Twain", whom some think is still our greatest writer, suggested that the time had come to redesign the American flag with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones." (Kinzer, p.54.) The great philosopher, William James, "said that Americans were guilty of 'murdering another culture' and concluded one of his speeches by declaring 'God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in the Philippines!'" (Kinzer, p.54.) Regardless of how you may feel about the conduct of the U.S. in the last few years, can you even imagine saying publicly today "God damn the U.S. for its vile conduct in Iraq"? You would be slapped in jail -- especially if you're Muslim, but even if you're not -- faster than you can say George Bush or DICK Cheney.)
Of course, as often true today too (and in Viet Nam as well), the pols and the press soon rose to the defense of our horrid conduct, saying we had to fight fire with fire, or that our men's reactions were understandable, or that it all had '"no bearing on fundamental questions of national policy," or that "only a few soldiers were guilty"' (when in fact the misconduct was pervasive), or that the American people "could not understand the challenges of bringing law to a semi-civilized people with all the tendencies and characteristics of Asiatics." (Kinzer, pp.54-55.)
Kinzer concludes his chapter on the Spanish American war by saying that the guerrilla war in the Philippines "had been a far more costly operation than anyone had predicted at the outset. In three and a half torturous years of war, 4,374 American soldiers were killed, more than ten times the toll in Cuba. About sixteen thousand guerrillas and at least twenty thousand civilians were also killed. Filipinos remember those years as some of the bloodiest in their history. Americans quickly forgot that the war ever happened." (Kinzer, p. 55.) As for the future of the Philippines, which we claimed to be preparing for democracy, it became -- and significantly remains -- a dictatorship, with massive thievery at the top (think Marcos), poverty and illiteracy. So much for us shouldering the "white man's burden" to help our "little brown brothers."
Kinzer is wholly right, of course, in saying that "Americans quickly forgot that the war [in the Philippines] ever happened. That war was not a part of our history books, and what the Viet Namese call "The American War" was more than half over before anyone thought to compare that disaster to the Philippines disaster that occurred only some 60 years previously (just a bit more timewise than Korea is today). The disappearance from our history books is another of the gross distortions of the history profession, which did not begin to be corrected until the rise of new generations of historians starting in the 1960's. It was symptomatic of why, in what might now be called the old days, history too largely was bunk, too largely was "agreed upon lies." And the disappearance of the episode from our history books paved the way, of course, for the imperialism, and the repetition of disaster, which reached their zeniths (we surely hope) in the disasters of, first, Viet Nam, and now Iraq.
Kinzer is owed a great debt for writing Overthrow, of which the chapter specifically devoted to the Spanish American War, including the Philippines Insurrection, is but one of many that detail American depredations, largely economically driven, and often driven, as Kinzer says, by our large corporations and the pols whom they influenced (or bought). Anyone who wants facts useful in trying to change the 100 year, errant course of the ship of state, and anyone who may be wondering why so many countries and people hate our guts, should buy and read his book. He has collected many episodes charting the direction of the off-course ship of state. And, for whatever tiny good it may do in contributing to the effort to change the course of the behemoth, which is now being sailed by the ignorant and malevolent supported by the like-minded and like-emotioned, this blogger will in future summarize some of the other misdeeds which are too often forgotten but are elaborated by Kinzer, such as those in Iran, Guatamala, Chile, and perhaps some others too.*
* This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at email@example.com. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.
VelvelOnNationalAffairs is now available as a podcast. To subscribe please visit VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com, and click on the link on the top left corner of the page. The podcasts can also be found on iTunes or at www.lrvelvel.libsyn.com